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Heroes, friends emerge in Project Outreach

BY LESLIE ROTT
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 14, 2005

Correction appended: the photo caption should have credited the drawing to Javone

When people think of heroes, they often think of those who have big names — Michael Jordan, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, to name a few. But it is the other stories that often go untold, those of everyday heroes, who are born in the most unlikely of places, like M.J. Maxey Boys’ Training School, located in Whitmore Lake.

This fall, at the onset of Project Outreach — a service-learning course at the University that places students throughout the community — one group took the project further than most groups even hope to go.

“You get out of the class what you put into it,” said LSA freshman Breanne Vander Naald, one of 11 students who visit a group of boys at the Maxey every Tuesday evening. “We are just going there to be a good friend and hopefully leave a positive impact.”

Maxey is a state juvenile facility where troubled youth, ages 12 to 21, are incarcerated by courts in order to obtain rehabilitation and re-entry into society by completing a court-ordered program, said Denise Thomas, activity therapy supervisor at Maxey.

Maxey is just one of several facilities that students can visit when they enroll in the class. Students taking the course are required to do a project, but there is no other expectation beyond that.

Vander Naald said the group started out doing icebreakers and other activities with the boys, but said they quickly realized that they were not accomplishing what they had set out to do.

The group decided that it would be nice to end the semester with a culmination of all the things that had been learned and said they felt the best way to do this was through a performance.

“We really wanted to inspire and motivate them, and what better way to do that than get them started thinking about success,” Vander Naald said. “I really felt like this was about getting them to open up and express themselves. Maxey is a correctional facility. It seems really bare and very conformist, and there is little room for self-expression, and one of our goals was to provide them with the opportunity to do this.”

LSA senior and group facilitator Kirk Whitelaw also spoke to why the group came up with success as the theme for their project.

“We came up with success because we thought it was something positive for the boys to reflect on and would leave enough room for them to interpret in their own way through their work.”  

So, with the common theme of success, the boys and the Project Outreach group set out on a journey that none of them would soon forget.

The boys described their feelings and each had a unique take on his experience.

“I’m never going to forget this one,” said Justin, one of the boys who the group met with each week. “It gives us a chance to talk to people who are out there in the real world and gives me something to aspire to.”

For the performance, Justin wrote a story and will be performing a skit with some of the other boys.

Success, he said, “isn’t something you can obtain, it’s something you feel.”

James, who is doing a break-dance routine for the performance, said he has become more open and trusting as a result of meeting with the Project Outreach students. He also said the group helps him and the other boys to keep in touch with society.

To him, success means meeting your goals and knowing what failure is, but being able to get back up when you do fail.

Each of the boys discussed his goals for the rest of their lives, of which he had many.

Bob wants to finish high school and hopes to be a dentist.

Of his experience at Maxey and with Project Outreach, he said that he has “rejuvenated” himself.

Josh, who has written poetry for the performance, said of the group that it “made me want to go to college.”

Robert said he enjoyed being around other people, as the Project Outreach group has given him the opportunity to do.

He is proud of his break-dance routine and said it has allowed him an outlet to put all of his feelings into. He said he was also proud that he came up with something that he is able to show other people.

Robert described success as “doing your best no matter what gets in your way.”

Javone, who drew a picture about what success means to him, hopes to go to art and law school once he is released from Maxey.

Derek, who is doing a skit on the Olympics, said, “They’ve taught me a lot about myself that I never knew I could do,” describing his relationship with the University students.

He also said the students have taught him a lot about friendship, loyalty and trust.

One day, Derek said he hopes to have a starting position on a football team and wants to be a motorcycle mechanic.

He also said he hopes his story will inspire people and wants to return to Maxey to visit one day as someone who has been through struggles, but has learned from his mistakes.

Each of the boys was quick to mention names when asked who he thought of as a hero when he thought of success.

Besides Barry Sanders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi, names like Andy, Mara, Jill, Gabriella, Whitney and Breanne were also brought into the mix.

Although those names may not ring a bell to many people, they strike a chord for the boys at Maxey. Those are the names of just a few of the Project Outreach students who donated their time, effort and hearts to spending one evening a week enriching their lives.

Vander Naald described the boys as heroes to the University students as well. She said they are “heroes for opening our eyes to who they really are.”

Several of the University students mentioned that they went into the experience with preconceived notions of what the boys would be like. However, they soon realized that their ideas could not have been further from the truth.

LSA junior Candace Forte described her experience as “phenomenal” and emphasized the fact that the boys at Maxey are just normal boys who are in need of friends.

“Programs like Project Outreach shed light on the issues of this often overlooked and neglected segment of society. You never know what to expect when you partake in a new experience, especially one of this nature, but I was pleasantly surprised by the bonds formed within our Project Outreach group and with the boys themselves,” she said.

Rodriguez added that she has gotten a lot out of the experience and hopes that the boys found the experience as rewarding as she did.

“They offer you little glimpses into their lives outside the walls of Maxey, and their stories tug at your heart-strings,” she said.

Some of the students mentioned that they would have liked to get to know the boys better, while others said they are upset that they will have to leave the boys when the semester ends.

However, despite these regrets, most described the experience as an extremely positive one.

“My experience with the boys at Maxey has been simply remarkable,” LSA freshman Andy Ramos said.

Whitelaw described the effort of his students to encourage the boys’ creativity and hold a performance as a great idea.

“It shows that they really understand a huge part of this course — getting out the voices of individuals who don't normally have a chance to be heard. We can learn just as much from these youths as they can learn from us,” Whitelaw said.

“I am quite impressed with the work we’ve seen. These boys are all very talented and creative,” he added.

Thaomas described the relationship between the boys and the University students as a symbiotic one. She said the boys eagerly await spending time with the students each week and that it helps the boys’ egos.

“I don’t think the public is aware of all the wonderful things that go on at Maxey,” Thomas said.

The boys will perform their creations at Maxey on Tuesday evening at the last meeting of the Project Outreach group.